The Bible teaches that God does not lie (Heb.6:18), so how is this possible:
1 Kings 22:20 and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’
And one said one thing, and another said another.
21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’
22 And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’
And the spirit said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’
And the Lord said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’
23 Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.”
The answer is that this did not literally happen, God did no such thing. The idea that God really put a lying spirit in anyone’s mouth comes from not reading the full context.
King Ahab and his court prophets
1Kings 22:1 For three years Syria and Israel continued without war. 2 But in the third year Jehoshaphat the king of Judah came down to the king of Israel. 3 And the king of Israel said to his servants, “Do you know that Ramoth-gilead belongs to us, and we keep quiet and do not take it out of the hand of the king of Syria?” 4 And he said to Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to battle at Ramoth-gilead?” And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.”
The context is that the king of the northern kingdom, Israel, wants to persuade the king of the southern kingdom, Judah, to join his war. But to do so he has to convince the doubtful, and pious, king of Judah, that the war is what God wants. So Ahab marshals his ‘house prophets’, the ones who say what Ahab wants. This event appears to be after Ahab’s repentance from Baal worship (1 Kings 21:25), so these appear to be prophets of Yahweh not Baal — albeit it the Yahweh who was worshipped in golden calves at Bethel and Dan, rather than the true Yahweh who was worshipped in the temple at Jerusalem.
1 Kings 22:5 And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “Inquire first for the word of the Lord.” 6 Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?” And they said, “Go up, for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.”
However the king of Judah is nervous — how can he believe these prophets of the Lord who eat at Ahab’s table and worship at Bethel and Dan? So Ahab reluctantly is forced to send for Micaiah, a real prophet.
1 Kings 22:7 But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not here another prophet of the Lord of whom we may inquire?” 8 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah the son of Imlah, but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil.” And Jehoshaphat said, “Let not the king say so.” 9 Then the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, “Bring quickly Micaiah the son of Imlah.”
Then follows the performance of Ahab’s house-prophets, led by Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah:
1 Kings 22:10 Now the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah were sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria, and all the prophets were prophesying before them. 11 And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron and said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘With these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed.’” 12 And all the prophets prophesied so and said, “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.”
Following this performance, the guards bring, under protest, Micaiah:
1 Kings 22:13 And the messenger who went to summon Micaiah said to him, “Behold, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king. Let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.” 14 But Micaiah said, “As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I will speak.” 15 And when he had come to the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?” And he answered him, “Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” 16 But the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?”
It is not clear why Micaiah’s positive answer brings anger from the king. Perhaps it is far too easy. Or perhaps there was a note of sarcasm in the response, which we do not pick up in writing. Or alternatively the king realised that “Go up and triumph” is not the same as “You will surely triumph”, and that Micaiah did not say which king — he may secretly have meant the king of Syria! In any case Micaiah’s next comment is wholly negative:
17 And he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.’”18 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?”
So he was predicting the victory of the king of Syria… not of Ahab.
Micaiah’s famous lying spirit prophecy
19 And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; 20 and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ 23 Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.”
There are several indications that this “vision” is ironic, if not sarcastic.
First, the context; does a prophet of God suddenly produce a “vision” to order? Prophecies can be spur of the moment, but visions generally come at night or in deep prayer (2 Sam.7:4, Job 33:15, Ezekiel 1:1). The instant nature of this “vision” suggests the false prophet visions of Jer.23:16.
Second; the prophets of Ahab have already said what Ahab wants to hear, and it is evident that the prophets of Ahab need no encouragement from angels to lie.
Third; nowhere in the Bible do we find the teaching that the court of heaven is an indecisive democracy with God asking for advice or ideas from the “host of heaven” (Hebrew, Sabaoth). Nor do we have one angel saying one thing, one saying another. This sort of heavenly court is found in Canaanite myth — for example in the little we know about Baal — but totally unknown in the Bible, since God is a God who does not take advice (“who hath been his counsellor? Isa 40:13-14, etc.). Then God agrees to be behind a lie, a deception. Again this is almost unheard of in Bible (“Let God be true though every one were a liar Rom.3:4, etc.) until the exception of the “great delusion” of 2Thess.2:11.
There’s a particular oddness about the use of “host” here rather than “angels”. The basic meaning of angels (messengers, malakim) is appropriate to the sending of a lying spirit, whereas “host” (sabaoth, armies) is not always positive in the Old Testament. The first reference to the “host of heaven” (Det.4:19, 17:3) is to forbid their worship, then we have positive mention of the Lord of Hosts at Shiloh (1Sam.1:3) but then again negative references associating their worship with Baal (2Kings 17:6, 21:3, Jeremiah 8:2, Acts 7:42). In fact, of 18 uses of the phrase “host of heaven”, at least 15 are negative, and of the remaining 3, 2 probably refer to literal stars in the sky.
Fourth; Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah clearly understood it as sarcastic, and aimed at himself:
1 Kings 22:24 Then Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah came near and struck Micaiah on the cheek and said, “How did the Spirit of the Lord go from me to speak to you?” 25 And Micaiah said, “Behold, you shall see on that day when you go into an inner chamber to hide yourself.”26 And the king of Israel said, “Seize Micaiah, and take him back to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king’s son, 27 and say, ‘Thus says the king, “Put this fellow in prison and feed him meager rations of bread and water, until I come in peace.”’” 28 And Micaiah said, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.” And he said, “Hear, all you peoples!”
Note in particular: “How did the Spirit of the Lord go from me to speak to you?”. The meaning is clear enough — you Micaiah say that I’m lying with a spirit from the host of heaven in my mouth, well who is to say that you are not lying yourself? And to go with that, slap!
The end of the story is predictable enough. Despite Ahab having disguised himself and put Jehoshaphat in the line of danger, a random arrow struck Ahab, but Jehoshaphat survived. We do not read of the end of Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah on the day when he goes into an inner chamber to hide himself, but this too is assumed. It would not be unlikely that Ahab’s widow Jezebel had him killed for the “lying prophecy” which killed her husband. It’s not as if she needed an excuse to kill a prophet of the Lord, even one of the Lord who was worshipped in the golden calves.
In sum, there’s nothing in the above that suggests that there was a literal meeting of the Sabaoth in heaven where God asked for their suggestions. Or that that’s how God’s court works at all. It’s simply an ironic prophecy, like so many of the prophecies of Elijah and Isaiah. It’s also possible that Micaiah may have sown in the irony some commentary about the religious views of the prophets of the golden calves, the ones who worshipped at Bethel and Dan. We simply don’t know — we have no information on the religion of the northern kingdom other than a few glimpses in Kings and Chronicles and Isaiah-period prophecies against “Ephraim”. It’s also possible that the later comment comparing Manasseh’s building of altars to the host of heaven in Jerusalem being “like Ahab” (2Kings 21:3-5) indicates that Ahab had done the same at Bethel and Dan.
It also isn’t out of the question that these northern prophets had, during the years when they were forced to worship Baal by Ahab’s wife Jezebel, absorbed some of the Canaanite ideas about a heavenly court with an indecisive and fallible god (Baal), and let that distort their view of the God of Israel. At least we know that Det.4:19 predicts and Acts 7:42 confirms that worship of the “host of heaven” was a continuing problem in Israel and Judah. In either case, the context and strange language looks like Micaiah is attacking Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah with his own beliefs — much as Jesus parodied Pharisee beliefs in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
In all, this “vision” is not a secure base to argue that God literally helps false prophets to do what comes naturally — lie.